Wednesday, June 19, 2013
How wise English author Penelope Lively is! And how assured her writing is! I have written here before about this wonderful author and about several of her novels. I have just re-read her novel “Spiderweb” (Harper Flamingo, 1998), which I originally read before I started this blog. It is the story of a just-retired social anthropologist, Stella Brentwood, who has for the first time bought a house in England and settled down. During her working life, she was constantly moving, doing fieldwork in various farflung locales. Her particular area of study was family and community lineages and relationships, those that form the “spiderwebs” of the title. Yet she herself, despite romances and friendships, never wanted to marry or confine herself to one place. Now, in her new cottage, she tries to observe the local people as she has observed her research subjects elsewhere over the years. She tries to get involved, and does so to an extent, but feels the ways in which English life has changed and in which community’s ties are less tight and compelling than in the past. She has both some friendly and some rather disturbing neighbors; her portrait of one family, with its abusive mother and two resentful teenaged sons, is quietly chilling. "Spiderweb" serves as a meditation on gender, love, connections, aging and the life choices we all make. Most of all, it focuses on the eternal balancing act between the life of the individual and the life of a member of a larger society; we all have both roles, and we are all constantly negotiating and readjusting those two roles. Finally, I want to say once again that Lively is one of the very best writers writing today.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
As I have written before, all my reading life I have enjoyed mysteries, especially those of a certain kind, those that some call English cozies, although I also like those about California women detectives. Like millions of other mystery readers, I started with Agatha Christie, in my case when I found a cache of her books on a shelf under the stairs of the living room area of my boarding school dormitory in India, and continued from there. There have been periods, however, when I have been tired of mysteries and stopped reading them for several years. I have just been in one of those periods, during which I stopped reading even new novels by my favorite mystery writers. For some reason, though, I recently picked up Jacqueline Winspear’s latest Maisie Dobbs novel, after choosing not to read the last couple of books in the series. This one, “Leaving Everything Most Loved” (Harper, 2013), turned out to be quite enjoyable and satisfying, reminding me of why I have liked this series so much from its inception. The series is about Maisie Dobbs, a woman who grew up poor, but through her interest in books and learning, was helped by a rich family to become a nurse during World War I, where she saw many terrible things, and then was helped by a mentor to become a private detective who uses psychology as much as traditional detective work to solve her cases. There is an almost spiritual element to her detecting. I was particularly interested in this current novel because it features characters from India, who were a real novelty in London at the time of this novel, the 1930s. Along with the mystery – the murders of two young women – the novel explores topics of immigration and prejudice, as well as a thread throughout all the Maisie novels: the terrible after-effects of war, physical and mental, on soldiers and their families. Although these are serious topics, Winspear is able to integrate them into her stories in a way that we note and grieve them, but that does not overwhelm the main thrust of the stories: the detection that solves the mysteries of the murders. There is also the plot thread of Maisie's romance and the uncertainty of whether this strong, independent woman will choose to marry, or to postpone marriage until she has traveled the world, something she feels drawn to do. I don’t know yet whether reading this one mystery was an aberration on my part, or whether I have cycled back to wanting to read more. Maybe an Elizabeth George -- another favorite in the past -- will be next?
Thursday, June 13, 2013
In a San Francisco Chronicle review (5/26/13, pp. F1-F2) of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel, reviewer G. Willow Wilson tells of -- a few years ago -- asking a Pakistani writer (whom she does not name) “what, in his opinion, makes contemporary Western literature distinctive?” “Simple. It’s about bored, tired people having sex,” he replied. Wilson comments that “The response was so immediate, delivered with such deadpan frankness…shorthand for the opaque cynicism of the postmodern novel, so very different from the urgently political, emotionally riotous books coming out of the Middle East and South Asia.” Wilson goes on to opine that the popularity of Hosseini’s novels (which take place between countries and cultures) “hints at the advent of a new, more global, less culturally compartmentalized era of literature,” and suggests that “we are living in a time when such distinctions are increasingly meaningless, and cynicism is going out of style.” The original distinctions, and the declaration of their going out of style, seem to me far too sweeping, and there is perhaps an unfortunate bit of stereotyping going on. But I did find these speculations intriguing, and started to think about which books I choose to read, and how they might fit into this schema. True confession: I realize that many of the books I read could be, very loosely (no pun intended!), put in the Pakistani writer’s “bored people having sex” category. But -- and I know it was partly a joke -- such a description is very reductionist. Of course sometimes the sweeping statements are the ones that make us think, even as we question them, or partially reject them.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Joan Silber’s “Fools” (Norton, 2013) doesn’t say “stories” or “a novel” after the title, as so many works of fiction do. It appears that this is a collection of stories, but some characters are found in more than one story, so each story’s history and events provide a sort of background and network for the other stories. The stories take place in New York, Miami, Paris, and India, among other places, and although contemporary, often dip into the past. The characters and events are genuinely interesting, and I like that politics play a part in the stories. For example, there are anarchist characters; this is not something often found in today’s fiction. Several of the characters are quite poor at various times in their lives, and struggle with alcohol as well. Actually, some of them would be labeled “losers” by most people, yet they have their own integrity, their own ways of dealing with life. The stories are fresh, different, and thought-provoking, which is what we all look for in stories.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
I (along with many other readers, clearly, as testified to by its long-running bestseller status) loved Elizabeth Strout’s collection of interconnected short stories, “Olive Kitteridge,” so I was primed to love her new novel, “The Burgess Boys” (Random House, 2013). I did in fact enjoy it, but I must say that at times it was a bit of a struggle, and at times it was depressing. This novel tells of the Burgess family, three adult siblings who have a closely connected and yet vexed relationship with each other. The two “boys” of the title are lawyers Jim and Bob; the third sibling is their sister Susan; other characters are Jim’s wife Helen and Susan’s troubled son Zach. Susan still lives in Maine, where the siblings grew up; Jim and Bob have moved to New York. Jim is the successful one of the family, a prominent lawyer who gained fame after he defended an O.J. Simpson-type character and was on television every night for a while. Now the family is challenged and brought together uneasily when the somewhat sad and immature Zach commits what some consider a hate crime, but what it seems clear he didn’t really do with any malice. This precipitating event brings out all the family history, all the family dynamics, and eventually uncovers an old family secret in the process. This book has a lot going on: It is about family, about Maine, about religious prejudice, about America's uneasy absorbing of new immigrants, about the law, about marriage, about parenting, about family secrets and their consequences, and more. It is sometimes sad and difficult to read, and other times uplifting. Most of all, as we read it, we are in the thick of the human condition.
Friday, June 7, 2013
It is hard to stay interested in a book in which so little actually “happens.” Yet Gail Godwin, in “Flora” (Bloomsbury, 2013), manages to make a rather static situation simmer with tension, because of all the family history so very present in every minute of the story. The situation is a classic example of a few characters’ being confined in a small space, and then one or two outsiders entering that space and tilting the precarious peacefulness of the original characters and situation. The two main characters are the precociously bright ten-year-old Helen and the 22-year old Flora, a relative who is taking care of Helen in Helen’s family’s house for a summer while her father is away doing secret war work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. They are mostly isolated in the house, because of a local polio scare, and see very few visitors. Further isolating them is that one of Helen’s friends has gotten polio and gone to a hospital; another friend has moved away. Very present throughout the story, in spirit, are Helen’s long-dead mother and her recently deceased and much-beloved grandmother, Nonie, and Helen’s father, although he is away throughout most of the story. The house itself, on a hill just outside a small town in North Carolina, is almost a character in itself; it is roomy and has a long history as a sanitarium as well as a family home, but now is badly decaying and feels isolated. The main focus of the story is the evolving relationship between the very clever Helen and the naïve, “heart-simple” Flora. Helen is teaching herself psychological skills such as manipulating Flora to do what she, Helen, wants her to do. Helen is not a bad child, but her precocity makes her too powerful for her age or for her own good. Yet we sympathize with her because of all her losses. Helen is also the narrator of the novel, so we readers are led to see things from her perspective. So, although nothing very big “happens” during the course of the novel, the weight of all that has happened before, and the impact of an event at the end, when something big finally happens, bring import and tension to everything in between, during that fateful summer. This novel is, finally, fascinating psychologically, as well as a slice of life from a certain time and place in American history (the South during World War II, suffused with all the history that has come before). Gail Godwin, always so good at creating atmosphere, has done so again in “Flora.”
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
This post is an unashamed (and slightly tongue-in-cheek) instance of regional pride in the area where I live: The San Francisco Bay Area. Perhaps readers will consider this pride provincial, and it may be, but here goes! Looking at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday book section every week, I often notice that the Bay Area and National best-seller lists -- especially the fiction lists -- are significantly different. For example, on 5/26/13, only two books appear on both hardcover fiction lists of 10 books each; the rest were different titles. The Bay Area lists, in general, include more “literary” books than do the national lists. On that same 5/26/13 list, for example, the Bay Area list includes Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs,” Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook” (OK, Allende lives in the Bay Area, which may be a factor, but still…), Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life,” and Therese Anne Fowler’s “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” none of which appears on the national list. The national list, in contrast, includes books by perennial bestselling authors such as James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Mary Higgins Clark, none of which appears on the Bay Area list. Granted, the Bay Area list often also includes such less “literary” books as well, but the overall distribution of titles on the two lists is fairly different. Readers may draw their own conclusions. And to my readers in other areas around the United States and the world: please forgive my San Francisco-centeredness in this post!